Decoding smart Kalasatama: Design research to evaluate the social impact of a smart city

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Master's thesis
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Master's Programme in Collaborative and Industrial Design
Smart Kalasatama is a platform for innovation managed by the City of Helsinki owned innovation company Forum Virium Helsinki and linked for five years to a housing development in a brownfield area. The purpose of Smart Kalasatama is to improve liveability of the urban ecosystem focusing on three themes: smart mobility, smart energy solutions and smart everyday life. Smart Kalasatama is based on cooperation between the public and private sectors and local residents. Complex design projects involving a significant number of stakeholders and funded with public money require detailed evaluation processes for the purposes of accountability, informing future projects and promoting citizen participation. The community-oriented, participatory methods and user-centred approach of Smart Kalasatama matched my interest in supporting a city environment that promotes wellbeing and considers input from the residents in decision-making, which served as the main motivation for this thesis project. I use Smart Kalasatama as a case study to create and test a method mix for evaluating complex design projects from the perspective of the residents. I use participatory design research methods to gather qualitative data on the impact of Smart Kalasatama on residents’ values, behaviours and attitudes. Concretely, I design a six-week long research method mix, involving interviews, collaborative digital boards and other activities, and applied it with seven households. Finally, I use this data to evaluate Smart Kalasatama by comparing its impacts with its original goals. My analysis and conclusions are divided in two streams reflecting my research questions: the smart city and how it has impacted the residents, and how these impacts align to the project’s strategic goals. Residents demonstrated positive attitudes towards experimentation and innovation and offered concrete feedback about Smart Kalasatama. However, findings show that residents are not often involved in strategic planning, suggesting that there is potential to further exploit residents’ knowledge. Residents reported a high level of trust in institutions and decision makers, particularly in the case of complex topics such as sustainability, which translates into passive citizen behaviour. Residents are perceptive of when their participation is meaningful and when it is used as a tool to justify design decisions. With regard to methods, digital tools proved sufficient for conducting qualitative research at this level. The longitudinal strategy for this project enabled me to build trust with participants and allowed for a higher level of empowerment. Simultaneously, it proved to be an organisational challenge and required a significant time investment.
Julier, Guy
Thesis advisor
Hodson, Elise
smart city, participatory design, community engagement, project evaluation, digital research methods, social impact, impact of design
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